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3 December 2020

Front Line Defenders Calls for An End to Threats & Attacks Against Sex Worker Rights Defenders, Announces Two Upcoming Reports on HRDs at Risk

In solidarity with human rights defenders and feminist partners from the Count Me In! consortium and their Counting Sex Workers In! Campaign, Front Line Defenders has called for an end to threats and attacks against sex worker rights defenders, and announced the upcoming launch of two reports documenting the risks, threats, and life-saving work of these HRDs.

Count Me In! is a joint initiative led by Mama Cash, and includes the sex worker-led Red Umbrella Fund (RUF), the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), CREA, Just Associates (JASS) and Urgent Action Fund – Africa (representing its sister funds in the US and Latin America). The Dutch gender platform WO=MEN is a strategic partner for lobbying and advocacy. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected Count Me In! as a strategic partner within its Dialogue and Dissent policy framework.

Front Line Defenders has previously supported, documented and given visibility to the work and risks of sex worker rights defenders in Urgent Appeals, Statements, Universal Periodic Review submissions, opinion pieces by staff researchers, Cypher digital magazine, national and international campaigns, public events and in collaboration with media networks such as the Guardian, NPR and RTE. Front Line Defenders has worked in solidarity with sex worker rights defenders via its various protection programmes including security grants, digital protection, Rest and Respite, Risk Assessment and Protection Planning, regional protection coordinators, and the Dublin Platform for Human Rights.

Sex worker rights defenders protect their communities’ rights to live free from violence and discrimination; to access healthcare, housing, justice, and employment; and to gather, organize, assemble, and advocate for change.1 2 Their human rights work includes emergency response, community building, advocacy at detention centers, human rights trainings, police reform, protection planning, legal and health counseling, prison aid, and promoting access to justice for survivors of human rights abuses.

2021 Report: Sex Worker Rights Defenders At Risk

In early 2021, Front Line Defenders will publish the first global report documenting the risks, threats, and protection needs of sex worker rights defenders. The report features case studies, testimonies, security analysis, and protection requests from human rights defenders, documented on collaborative research trips conducted by Front Line Defenders researchers and HRDs. Between 2017 and 2020, Front Line Defenders interviewed more than 300 sex worker rights defenders and sex worker community members in more than a dozen countries.3

The upcoming report documents threats and attacks against HRDs occurring as a direct result of their activism. It places the work of sex worker rights defenders within frames, concepts, and language typical of international human rights norms and standards, so as to further visibilize their HRD work and enable greater access to HRD protection services and mechanisms.

The report also documents the ways in which the human rights activities of these HRDs benefit not only people who identify as sex workers, but also those who were forced or compelled into selling sex unwillingly. This includes human rights activities such as: negotiating access to brothels, trainings on how to access justice mechanisms and report experiences of violence, identifying medical needs, harm reduction, building connections and trust with establishment managers, emergency response, and advocacy for freedom of movement and free choice of employment for those seeking to leave sex work.

“On fact-finding missions in Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador, Front Line Defenders researchers spoke with more than 300 defenders and communities members about the risks, threats and protection needs of sex workers who become visible advocates for human rights. The report finds that a large majority of violence perpetrated against these HRDs is demonstrably in retaliation for their activism.” - Meerim Ilyas, Deputy Head of Protection, Front Line Defenders

COVID-19: Responding to the Immediate Needs of Defenders

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, sex worker rights defenders were among those hardest hit and report launch plans were delayed out of respect for the capacity of HRD partners. During the crisis, Front Line Defenders produced a new crisis response report documenting the impact of the pandemic on LGBTI and sex worker rights defenders.4

“Sex worker rights defenders have continued their critical, life-saving work during the COVID-19 pandemic in the face of immense threats to their physical and psychological health. In addition to human rights advocacy and emergency response work, they are filling humanitarian gaps left by corrupt governments and discriminatory responses to the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is important to affirm our calls to end attacks on marginalized defenders doing life-saving work on the ground.” - Andrew Anderson, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders

December 2020 Report: LGBTI & Sex Worker Rights Defenders At Risk During COVID-19

Front Line Defenders, in partnership with The Advocate magazine, will launch this crisis response report the week of 13 December, ahead of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on 17 December.

The virus itself and state responses to the pandemic have affected queer, sex worker, and economically marginalized communities in ways that exacerbate existing systems of classed, gendered, sexualized and racial injustice. Economic insecurity and rising violence against LGBTI people and sex workers has directly impacted HRD security. As the need to respond to dangerous emergencies rises, HRDs face increasing risks of arrest, physical attack, and psychological trauma.

Documented in the report are: raids on HRD homes during which attackers sexually assaulted homeless community members who had taken shelter with HRDs; mass arrests at the offices of LGBTI rights organisations; eviction from family homes; closure of HRD-run medical clinics; sexual harassment and detention of transgender HRDs at security check points established to limit social movement; homophobic and transphobic defamation portraying HRDs as spreaders of COVID-19; and severe psychological trauma over their inability to fully respond to the many dire needs of their communities.

“Sex worker rights defenders are defamed, arrested, and attacked at the intersection of two identities – sex worker and HRD. The threats and risks associated with one magnify the other, and yet it is also at this intersection that defenders tell us they find their greatest strengths. Our upcoming reports document not only the immense risks, but also the strategies sex worker rights defenders use to protect their communities. The cases and testimonies transcend narratives of a victimized, sexualized population employing ad hoc survival tactics, and explore a broader, more nuanced collection of creative, methodical and intersectional protection systems designed and deployed by some of the world’s most marginalized and resilient defenders.” - Erin Kilbride, Research & Visibility Coordinator, Front Line Defenders


1 Front Line Defenders used the terminology sex work human rights defenders because that is how the human rights defenders self-identify.

2 For the purposes of these reports, Front Line Defenders understands sex workers to be adults who regularly or occasionally receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. In establishing any working definition of sex work, sex worker, or sex worker rights defender, Front Line Defenders respects that many terms related to the sex trade are the subject of ongoing critique by HRDs from these communities themselves. Such shifts in language must be respected and, where appropriate and in consultation with defenders, adopted by the international community.

3 On four fact-finding missions in Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador, researchers visited at least four regions per country and interviewed between 25 and 35 SWRDs in each. Front Line Defenders also interviewed an additional 20 to 40 sex worker community members in each country, to differentiate between risks faced by sex workers who are visible activists, and sex workers who do not identify as activists (or community leaders, outreach workers, peer educators, or advocates). Additional consultations and interviews were held with SWRDs in Tunisia, the United States, Ireland, Thailand, Malawi, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini.

4 Between April and August 2020, Front Line Defenders conducted remote interviews with LGBTI and sex worker rights defenders in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Tanzania, Uganda, Hungary, El Salvador, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, who report facing increased physical, economic, legal and psychological risks linked to their human rights activism during COVID-19.